Canadians try to out-polite one another. In the Middle East, people see who can offer the longest, most poetic greeting. In Poland, maintaining a certain level of discontentment seems to be a national past-time and there are some real experts out there. “Ale” is the worst and most over-used word in the Polish language. It means “but” and you most often hear it sandwiched between a positive statement and the negative statements that immediately neutralizes it. To illustrate this observation we’ll share a conversation we overheard yesterday on the train:
Lady 1: “what a sunny day. It’s good to see the sun again.”
Lady 2: “yes it’s nice, but it’s still so cold.”
Lady 1: “true, but at least it is warm here on the train.”
Lady 2: “not just warm – it’s hot. Too hot.”
Lady 1: “I’m just happy we got seats on this crowded train”
Lady 2: “it’s nice to be sitting, but could these seats be any harder?”
We’ve talked about the “as good as it gets” mentality that seems so prevalent in Poland, but we’re beginning to better understand why it is intensified in Włocławek.
We say, “Włocławek is a good town with potential”. We’re told, “it’s good, but…”
Like all things European, past events still have present impact (and we’ll stick to recent history since this town has a long and sordid past). On January 1, 1999 Poland underwent a major administrative overhaul. Poland went from having 49 small voivodeships (województwo in Polish), or provinces, which were based on historical regions, and no counties to 16 voivodeships which now include counties (powiat) and municipalities (gmnia). Under the previous system, Włocławek was the capital city of it’s own province and was funded as such. In the new province of Kujawsko-Pomorskie, Włocławek remains the the capital for the surrounding county but on a provincial level now occupies a begrudging 3rd place after Bydgoszcz and Toruń. From what people tell us, the city has never been the same since. With Bydgoszcz at the helm of business and administration and Toruń serving as the seat of culture and academia, residents of Włocławek feel they’ve been left with little. The administrative restructuring was good for Poland, but not for Włocławek.
Compared to other EU nations, Poland has weathered the economic crisis well and has received praise from some notable financial minds. Sadly, past these numbers there are some disturbing trends. Wages seem to be on the rise, but when you look at who is earning what, the gap between rich and poor appears to be more of a widening gulf. Add to this the fact that unemployment has surpassed 13% (which is drastically worse compared to Poland’s fellow post-Communist neighbours and the highest it’s been in 2 decades) and that more people have left Poland than any other EU nation. Younger workers have the most trouble finding employment, especially in the east which is less developed and often referred to as Poland B (it was occupied and under-loved by the Russian Kingdom for 100 years). Here in Włocławek layoffs and work scarcity have driven people to leave. Even in our short time here we’ve had friends move to other Polish cities and the UK. 2 million Poles are looking for work – wherever they can find it. The population of Włocławek has decreased by 30,000 in the last 15 years. There are job opportunities out there, but not in Włocławek.
We tell people here they have a new mall – “but it’s so small” is the response. The boardwalk along the river has been redone – but it’s in the worst part of town. The city park is lovely – but it floods every spring. The only thing everyone agrees on is that Włocławek produces good ketchup. We joke about English speakers inability to say Włocławek, but we’re starting to realize that people here probably don’t care that you can’t pronounce it. We believe in divine transformation, especially on a community level, and our goal is to see the word “ale” get less airtime in Włocławek.